All over the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. While thinking of the systematic annihilation of six million Jews by the Nazi Germans during WWII the name of this concentration and extermination camp comes most certainly first to mind. Auschwitz was liberated on January 27th, 1945, a day now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I presume you have heard about that but have you known that KL Lublin commonly called Majdanek in time became the largest concentration camp on the territory of the General Government? Lesser-known was the worst concentration camp where the inmates were treated the most inhumane and bestial which resulted in the highest death toll. They just died from emaciation, and also in one of seven gas chambers built on-site.
There is one more reason to visit Majdanek. The camp, which operated from October 1st, 1941 until July 22nd, 1944, was captured nearly intact, because the rapid advance of the Soviet Red Army during Operation Bagration prevented the SS from destroying most of its infrastructure, but also due to ineptitude of commandant Anton Thernes who failed in his task of removing incriminating evidence of war crimes. Therefore, Majdanek became the first concentration camp discovered by Allied forces. Also known to the SS as Konzentrationslager Lublin, Majdanek remains the best preserved Nazi concentration camp of the Holocaust.
Located within the boundaries of a major city
Unlike other similar camps in Nazi-occupied Poland, Majdanek was not located in a remote rural location away from population centres, but within the boundaries of a major city. This proximity led the camp to be called „Majdanek” (“little Majdan”) by local people from the start. The name can be traced back to the city district Majdan Tatarski. The Nazi documents which have been discovered in the Majdanek Museum and in the Lublin City Archive initially called the site a Prisoners of War Camp of the Waffen-SS in Lublin (Kriegsgefangenenlager der Waffen-SS Lublin, abbreviated as KGL) because of the way it was operated and funded. This name appears for the first time in a document dated October 7, 1941. The term „concentration camp” (Konzentrationslager, abbreviated as KL) was not used at the time however it changed on April 9th, 1943. The camp was renamed by RSHA (The Reich Main Security Office) in Berlin into Konzentrationslager Lublin. Eventually the name „Majdanek” came to be generally used, and it is also the name of choice today both in academic historiography and colloquial Polish.
Order to Establish the Camp
The first paper page of the calendar – July 20th, 1941. That month the National-Socialist occupation administration decided to set up a large concentration camp near the city of Lublin in the course of the initially successful German attack on the Soviet positions in eastern Poland. As far as one can tell based on the incomplete documentation available, the starting point for the genesis of the Lublin camp seems to have been Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler’s visit to Lublin in July 1941. Himmler entrusted local district SS and police commander, Odilo Globocnik, with building a camp “for 25-50,000 inmates who would be used to work in SS and police workshops and at construction sites”. In October of that year the camp developed in the southeastern outskirts of the city. The camp was going to be the source of a free workforce for the realization of the plans to build a German empire.
The planned number of prisoners being enlarged each time
The construction was commissioned to the SS Central Construction Board. Prisoners were supposed to work in the construction of a large housing estate for the SS, Clothing and Supplies Factories, and after their completion they were to be employed in production and in the workshops which were to be formed in the camp. After giving the instructions for building the camp, Heinrich Himmler gave the order to an SS-Standartenführer Karl Otto Koch, who was the former commandant of the Buchenwald concentration camp, to take up organisational matters of newly emerging camp.
Initial plans concerning the size of the camp were modified a couple of times, with the area of the camp and the planned number of prisoners being enlarged each time. The original plan drafted by Himmler was for the camp to hold at least 25,000 POWs. Following the large numbers of Soviet prisoners of war captured during the Battle of Kiev, the projected capacity was subsequently established at 50,000 and construction for that many began on October 1st, 1941 (Auschwitz-Birkenau had also received the same order). In early November, the plans were extended to allow for 125,000 inmates and in December to 150,000. It was further increased in March 1942 to allow for 250,000 Soviet prisoners of war. Thereby Majdanek was to have become the largest camp in occupied Europe.
DEPORTATION OF THE SOVIET PRISONERS OF WAR
Next paper page of the calendar – October 1941. The Soviet prisoners of war made the first large group. Shortly after their deportation also interpreters, physicians and prison functionaries from other camps including Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen started to be brought to Majdanek.
Larger prisoner transports usually arrived at Majdanek on cattle trains while smaller ones, usually from the Lublin District, were brought in on trucks. During the transports, the deportees were not provided with any food or water, and the harsh conditions resulted in appallingly high mortality rates. Bodies of the dead would not be removed from the carriages until the arrival in Lublin.
The choice of camp location was probably motivated by practical considerations. The camp’s proximity to the Lublin train station meant that inmate transports could be marched in, obviating the need to construct a rail line to the camp. In fact, the trains had to stop several kilometres away from Majdanek and from there, columns of prisoners were marched to the camp on foot.
After reaching Majdanek, the new arrivals were stripped of all personal belongings. Their hair was cut to be used as material in industrial production. A preserved data sheet relating to “hair management” indicates that in the period from September 1942 to June 1944, Paul Reimann’s company in the town of Friedland received a total of 730 kg of hair originating from Majdanek.
Upon arrival, Jews were subjected to a preliminary selection, after which children and the elderly deemed unfit to perform physical labor were sent directly to the gas chambers and murdered.
The first transport of Jews from Lublin arrives
Non-Jewish and Jewish Polish citizens made up the bulk of the inmates, but prisoners from many other nations were also detained there, as well as a number of Soviet prisoners of war.
Exposed to the autumn cold
Meanwhile, construction of the first camp was in full swing. The first inmate transports, consisting of Soviet as well as Polish-Jewish prisoners of war, were assigned the task of leveling the terrain and erecting the barracks on the first compound. In late November, when the first Polish functionary inmates arrived from camps located in the Reich, such as Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and Gusen (a satellite camp of Mauthausen), the southern row of barracks as well as some of the barracks in the northern row on Compound I were already set up. For the prisoners assigned to this work, the working conditions were very harsh and inhumane, since they had to sleep under the open sky until the first barracks were completed, and were thus exposed to the autumn cold as well as to the rain.
December 1941/January 1942
The first group of Polish peasants from the Lublin region are detained in the camp
In December 1941 the first groups of Polish hostages started to be detained in the Majdanek camp. They were imprisoned in reprisal for participation in sabotage and in guerrilla actions as well as for default on quota and tax towards the occupational authorities. At the end of the month the transport of 400 peasants was sent to the camp. Those people were arrested and taken directly to the camp from villages near Lublin.
1,000 inmates in one barrack
Majdanek was seen as one of the most primitive of all Nazi camps and the living conditions here were scandalous. Wooden barracks, especially the stable-type ones, provided hardly any protection against weather conditions. In winter, two small heaters would be placed in each barrack but they were highly insufficient to effectively heat such large and draughty spaces.
As late as in early 1943, prisoners could be quartered in unfinished barracks which lacked windowpanes and even the most basic furniture. Before plank beds were installed and paillasses distributed, inmates were forced to sleep directly on the floor.
A barrack planed for 150–250 people would usually house a far greater number of prisoners. In the period of the greatest overpopulation, that number could sometimes reach as many as 1,000 people.
The barracks had no sewage system. Until the spring of 1943, they lacked even the most basic sanitation. The lack of water made it impossible to wash oneself or one’s undergarments. The prisoners were not allowed to keep any cleaning agents. Due to the lack of sanitary installations, during the day completely unshielded sewage pits had to be used as latrines. At night, as leaving the barracks was forbidden, a set of large, wooden containers served as communal toilets. These tended to be permanently overfilled and the stench they generated was appalling, particularly given the fact that all windows had to remain closed even in the heat of the summer. Prisoners were also plagued by disease-spreading insects.
Mass transportation of Slovak Jews
It started to be detained prisoners at Majdanek as part of “Aktion Reinhardt”. Transports of Slovak Jews arrived to Majdanek as a result of agreement between Nazi Germany and Slovakia. They were mostly men who were able to work.
Women, children and the elderly from those transports were directed to different villages and towns in Lublin district and they were settled there instead of Jews, who were sent to the death camps in Bełżec and Sobibór. In general, around 8,500 Slovak Jews and about 6,000 Jews from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia as well as from Germany and Austria were detained at Majdanek in the spring of 1942.
The deadliest phase of the Holocaust
“Einsatz Reinhard” was the code name given to the secretive German Nazi plan to exterminate Polish Jews in the former General Governement and the Bialystok area, better known as “Aktion Reinhard”. The operation marked the deadliest phase of the Holocaust with the introduction of extermination camps.
The term was taken in remembrance of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the coordinator of the Endlösung der Judenfrage (Final Solution of the Jewish Question), the extermination of the Jews living in the European countries occupied by German troops during WWII. Members of the Czech underground resistance fighters assassinated Heydrich on May 27th, 1942.
As many as two million Jews were sent to Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, extermination camps set up specifically for Operation Reinhard, to be put to death in gas chambers built for that purpose. In addition, mass killing facilities using Zyklon B were developed at about the same time within the Majdanek concentration camp, and at Auschwitz II-Birkenau near the existing Auschwitz I camp for Polish prisoners.
Jewish property to the value of 178,045,960 German Reichsmark (todays value around 760,000,000 US$) was robbed and fell into the hands of German authorities.
Gas chambers start operating
In the summer of 1942, construction of gas chambers started. In July of that year Cyclone B was ordered in Tesch & Stabenow company in Hamburg. The first batch of the poisonous gas was delivered to the camp at the end of August, whereas the gas chambers were put into operation in September or October 1942. Carbon monoxide was also used for killing prisoners.
Gas chambers were set up in brick-built building called bunker, which was placed behind the bath barracks for men. It was surrounded by barbed wire and wooden fence. Above it spread the shelter supported by wooden pillars affixed to concrete pedestals.
Carbon oxide and Zyklon B
The direct and indirect extermination at Majdanek resulted in the deaths of nearly 80 thousand people, approximately 60 thousand of whom were Jews. The high mortality was exacerbated, apart from the general harshness of the living conditions, work and disease, by direct forms of murder such as drowning in sewage pits, hangings, beatings, or phenol injections.
The greatest number of people lost their lives to the firing squads and in the gas chambers. Executions were carried out in the entire period of the camp’s operation. The largest-scale execution in the camp’s history took place on November 3rd, 1943, when in a single day, approximately 18,000 Jews from Majdanek and other camps in Lublin were murdered. From the fall of 1943, similar executions were carried out at KL Lublin on Polish prisoners arriving from the Castle prison. There are also reports of SS men shooting people as a form of entertainment.
Between the fall of 1942 and early September 1943, extermination of prisoners, mainly Jews, was carried out in the gas chambers using carbon oxide and Zyklon B. Jews underwent constant selection: not only upon arrival at Majdanek but also later, once already registered at the camp. Good physical condition and healthy appearance were the main factors determining one’s chances of staying alive.
Prisoners in the final stages of extreme emaciation or terminal stages of diseases were sent to special barracks known as Gammelblocks. There, deprived of food or any medical assistance, they were condemned to slow agony and death. Anyone still alive after several days inside would be taken to the gas chambers together with Jews deemed unfit for work.
Initially, bodies of the victims were buried in mass graves and later cremated at the crematorium or on crematory pyres. The ashes, mixed with soil and waste, would be later used as fertilizer. After the camp’s liquidation, investigators uncovered 1,300 m³ of compost containing human remains.
The female concentration camp starts its operations
Frauen Konzentrationslager (FKL) was established on October 1st, 1942. The first inmates were women from Lublin`s quarters of Dziesiąta and Wieniawa and from the town of Goraj.
The concentration camp for women was set up in prisoner field V. Not only men but also women had to comply with very severe rules and were supervised by German women brought to Majdanek from the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Everyday life in the camp
Depending on the season, the day at KL Lublin started at 5 or 6 am. Prisoners were required to quickly get dressed, make their plank beds and eat their morning meal which consisted of a cup of black chicory coffee without sugar, infusion of weed or watered down soup with some wholemeal flour.
Meals were served in rusty and battered tin cans or tin cups and bowls. No spoons, forks, knives or bottles for the children were allowed. Apart from meals, the same containers had to be used for cleaning and washing. Until October 1943, regardless of the weather conditions, prisoners were not allowed inside the barracks during meals.
After the meal, the morning roll-call started, for which all the sick and dying, as well as the bodies of those who had died during the night had to be carried out. Small children were also required to participate in the roll-calls. Once the inmates had been counted, work groups called commandos were formed and the prisoners were escorted to their work duties.
In the afternoon the dinner break was ordered, during which every prisoner received a ladle of watered down soup, in the summer made from pigweed or leaf cabbage, in the winter from rotten rutabaga, which contained no fat or salt. The leaves and stalks that constituted the only substantial item on the menu were usually undercooked and mixed with sand and dirt. Around 1 pm, prisoners returned to work.
The evening roll-call started at 6 pm in the summer and 4.30 pm in the fall and winter. It usually lasted between 2 and 3 hours but if a transgression was discovered or a prisoner was found missing, they could even continue through the night. After the roll-call, prisoners received supper which consisted of a slice of bread or several unpeeled potatoes and the same drink they received for breakfast. Twice a week, they also received a slice of horsemeat sausage, a small helping of beetroot preserve or margarine. In total, the daily food ration provided approximately 1,000 calories, too less for someone who worked so hard.
9 pm was the light-out hour after which leaving the barracks was prohibited. The inmate who left might be shot.
The first transport of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto, which is engulfed by uprising, comes to Majdanek
On April 19th, an uprising broke out in the Warsaw ghetto. In spite of heroic fight, SS units led by Jürgen Stroop bloodily suppressed Jewish resistance. Remaining ghetto inhabitants were deported to the camps in Treblinka, Poniatowa, Trawniki and at Majdanek. According to Stroop’s report, these transports included 56,000 Jews in total. It has been estimated that about 20,000 Jews were sent to Majdanek.
The camp’s SS Staff
The chief authority over the KL Lublin rested in the hands of the camp commandant. He was responsible for the overall control over all matters related to the camp’s operation, coordination of its particular organizational structures, as well as security and isolation.
The commandant’s authority extended over six departments: headquarters, political department, prisoner department, administrative department, sanitary department, and educational propaganda department.
The women’s camp was staffed by 28 female guards who were formally not part of the SS. The command of this section was in the hands of Oberaufseherin Else Ehrich, who served the functions of prisoner camp director and field director. She answered directly to the commandant and in some instances also the Political Department.
Guard detachments constituted the most numerous group of the camp’s SS staff. They consisted mainly of SS men, Volksdeutschers – mainly from Rumunia and Jugoslavia as well as Belarus, and Ukrainians and Russians recruited from the ranks of Soviet prisoners of war trained at the camp in Trawniki. The guard service also included a Lithuanian police battalion.
Execution by firing squad of 18,000 Jews – prisoners of Majdanek and labor camps in Lublin – operation “Erntefest”
On November 3rd, 1943, the biggest execution in the history of German concentration camps took place at Majdanek camp. It was conducted within the operation “Erntefest” (Harvest Festival) and it finished extermination of the Jews in the Lublin district. The “Erntefest” operation held in Lublin involved all the Jewish prisoners of Majdanek, and those from the camps on Lipowa Street and in Flugplatz – 18,000 people in total.
The march and dance music played to drown out the noise of shots
First decisions concerning the “Erntefest” operation were probably made already in the summer of 1943. The latest build-up to the operation took place a few days before its execution, at the end of October. At the back of the camp, right after field V and near a newly built crematorium, the inmates divided into groups had to dig three ditches 100 metres long and 1.5-3 metres deep.
The convicts had to gather in field V. When they got there they had to get undressed. Then they were taken to the ditches where they were ordered to lie face down to the ground. They were killed by a single shot in the back of the head or neck by members of the execution commando who were standing on the edge of a ditch. For the entire time, the march and dance music was played to drown out the noise of shots.
In order to remove the traces of the crimes
Prisoners came from nearly 30 countries. Polish citizens dominated (mainly Poles and Jews) but there were also prisoners from the Soviet Union and the Czech Republic (Jews). Apart from Poles and Jews, the Russians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians constituted the largest groups of inmates. Representatives of other nationalities made up a small percentage of the general number of inmates (French and Germans among others).
From the very beginning of their stay at the camp, the prisoners were inevitably accompanied by hunger, fear, backbreaking work and diseases. For all real and imagined offences prisoners were severely punished and persecuted. Prisoners’ lives were constantly threatened. They died in the aftermath of wretched living conditions, they were executed and murdered in gas chambers. Among an estimated 150,000 prisoners who entered Majdanek, 80,000 people, including 60,000 Jews, were killed according to the most recent research. In order to remove the traces of the crimes, the corpses of those who died and the murdered were burnt on pyres or in the crematorium.
Beginning of the Prisoners Evacuation
First evacuation transports started at the beginning of April. In less than three weeks about 9,000 men, women and children were transported to the concentration camps located west of Lublin. People who were deemed able to work got to camps in the Reich, whereas the majority of the sick and many in grave condition got to Auschwitz.
Three months later, on July 7th, the headquarters of the camp resumed the evacuation by sending 1250 prisoners of war to the Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz.
Executed and replaced with new inmates
Work at Majdanek, similarly to other camps, was a key means of oppression and extermination employed by the Germans. The prisoners were treated as a source of free, slave labour.
The work capacity of every person stepping through the gate of the camp determined their chances of survival. In the case of Jews, being deemed unfit for work was an immediate death sentence. The chances of surviving the camp significantly decreased for anyone growing too weak or ill to perform their duties.
Prisoners were grouped in work teams known as commandos. These could number anywhere between several and several hundred people, in some cases even more. The commando names reflected the tasks for which they were assigned or the place where they were sent to work. There were internal commandos working within the camp grounds and external commandos, marched to work outside Majdanek.
Commandos were usually supervised by SS guardsmen. Work groups were directed by kapos who served as supervisors, managers or foremen. The direct supervision over particular prisoners/workers was the responsibility of vorarbeiters.
Until June 1942, nearly half of the prisoner population worked on the construction of camp facilities. Some were used for other camp related work, e.g. at the washhouse, sewing shop, kitchens, storerooms, offices or infirmaries. Others were sent to work at manufacturing plants operated by the SS as well as other facilities in Lublin.
The worst assignments were those involving construction and earthworks, as these were continued regardless of the season or weather conditions. If there was not enough work to occupy all prisoners, nonsensical tasks were assigned involving e.g. carrying earth or stones from one place to another while running and being constantly abused by the guards.
There was no hope of survival for prisoners sent to work at the mass extermination facilities – i.e. operating the gas chambers or the crematorium. As direct eye witnesses to the committed atrocities, after a certain period of time they were all executed and replaced with new inmates.
The best assignments were those providing the opportunity to obtain additional food or a chance to work indoors.
Evacuation of the Last Group of Prisoners
The final liquidation of the camp took place in the afternoon on July 22nd. A few hours earlier, near the crematorium of Majdanek, Germans executed several hundred prisoners of the Lublin Castle and civilians in reprisal for partisan activities.
The column with around 800 people escorted by the SS officers was taken out of the Majdanek. They were accompanied by more than 200 prisoners from the camp on Lipowa Street and after a few days of march they were embarked on train from Ćmielów to Auschwitz. The next morning, unattended peasants got out of Majdanek. A few hours later, during still ongoing struggles for Lublin, the troops of 1st Belorussian Front entering the territory of the camp found their Soviet comrades in arms in the camp.
This text was meant to be a story about lovely city of Lublin, which celebrates seven centuries of town rights this year. But my son showed me the photos he had taken during the field trip to the State Museum of Majdanek, former German Nazi concentration camp, KL Lublin. When I saw gas chambers which are nearly intact I knew I should write a text about that place. Majdanek is the crucial part of history of Holocaust. I hope I have encouraged you to visit Memorial and Museum. I believe it`s worth seeing.
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
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